Communicating Across Cultures

Industry Matters Newsletter

Nearly every workplace is made up of employees who come from different cultures. To succeed in these cross-cultural business settings, you have to understand the differences in how people from other cultures communicate. Language may be your first thought, but messages get lost when we fail to navigate different paces, styles and nonverbal cues. To avoid or minimize these misunderstandings, Tatiana Kolovou from the Kelley School of Business tells us how to adapt our communication style and overcome our hidden biases to build rapport with our colleagues, no matter what culture they grew up in.

The first step to improving your cross-cultural communication skills is to acknowledge that you have improvements to make. We each have hidden biases, but if we recognize the conclusions we make about another colleague before we speak to them, we can combat those assumptions. Then, make it a point to be aware of how their culture informs their behavior in the workplace.

A cultural context informs some of the most obvious differences in behavior between you and your colleagues.  People in the U.S. operate in a low-context culture. Messages are spelled out for us, phrases have obvious meaning, and we are seldom silent. A high-context culture has less explicit messages, meanings are less obvious and silence is more powerful than words. 

Before engaging with people from other cultures, make the best impression by doing your homework to understand how their culture operates and communicates. Consider the difference in time orientation. In business settings, people in a monochromic time culture, such as the U.S., share messages as quickly and directly as possible. People in a polychromic time culture will take time to communicate a message and veer off-track along the way. 

Adapt your communication style to non-native English speakers. Be informed about how they communicate, practice the appropriate introduction, avoid assuming English is universal and become comfortable with accents. 

Think about these tips the next time you get a little nervous approaching a colleague who comes from a different background. You’ll build connections to help you succeed in the workplace. Remember, these are just some overarching observed behaviors. Someone’s personality will be more important than the general characteristics of their culture, so get to know that person on an individual level.